As anyone with a kitchen knows, ants are annoying scavengers. They’re constantly on the lookout for new food sources and will use the tiniest entry point to gain access. If your kitchen is particularly messy – with food left on bench tops or jars left open – you may be more likely to attract these tiny invaders.
It’s a similar story with your beehives. Ants are usually more of an annoyance than a real danger to bees, but they can be a sign that your colony is not in the best shape. If you see a few ants under the hive cover or around the entrances, your colony is probably fine, but spotting ants on the comb itself is a worry. Weak colonies, newer colonies, and hives that have recently been split can struggle to defend their comb against ants, which can lead to problems if there’s a full-scale invasion.
Although most species of ant found in New Zealand are harmless, there are nasty exceptions. The Argentine Ant, an invasive species, can be an issue in your hive. This type of ant forms massive, consuming colonies, which can in some cases cause your colony of honeybees to flee the hive.
Harmless or not, here’s how to protect your hives from ant invasion:
Avoiding an invasion is always easier than getting rid of existing pests. Fortunately, there are a number of simple ways to reduce the number of ants in your hives.
Keeping hives off the ground is key. While some beekeepers use cinder blocks or bricks as hive stands, narrow legs actually make it more difficult for ants to enter the hive. They don’t need to be particularly tall – 15cm is plenty.
It’s also good practice to keep your hives clean and in good repair. Cracks and splits in the outer hive can give ants entry points, while debris and dirt in the hive can attract them.
Keep the area around your hives tidy as well – tall grasses or weeds leaning against the hive can give ants more ways to enter.
Barriers to entry
Creating physical or chemical barriers can also help keep ants away.
Many beekeepers swear by ant moats or ant bowls. These are small containers placed around each leg of the hive, filled with vegetable oil or soapy water. Ants can’t cross oil, and soap breaks the surface tension of water, causing them to sink. The simplest moat is a recycled can or half a plastic bottle. Make sure that your moats are not too large, or you could inadvertently attract and drown some of your own bees.
Sticky substances on the legs of the hive are another option. Vaseline, oil, or a product called Tanglefoot all trap ants and stop them from reaching the hive. They do need to be reapplied every so often, particularly after heavy rain.
Finally, Diatomaceous Earth or cinnamon can be sprinkled around each leg to repel ants. Diatomaceous Earth is a naturally occurring substance made from ground sedimentary rock. Because it’s so finely ground, it absorbs oils from the exoskeletons of insects, causing them to dehydrate and die. Cinnamon, on the other hand, simply has an off-putting smell that ants seem to dislike. Don’t put either of these products in your hives, as they could harm your bees, and remember to reapply frequently.
Pick your poison
If you find your hives overrun by ants, you may need to use a commercial poison. Because ants and bees are so closely related, this needs to be done with care – the same poisons that eliminate ants have the potential to decimate your bee population as well.
Use a small bait station designed for ants, so your bees can’t reach the poison, or spread a granulated insecticide around the hive. Avoid sprays and powders, as these can drift into the hive and cause issues. You may need to try a couple of types of poison before you find the one that works for you.
Care and attention
As always when it comes to beekeeping, care, observation, and consistency are your best defenses. Keeping your bees healthy and strong is likely to prevent most ant problems, and keeping a close eye on your hives means you can catch potential issues before they become big problems.